U.S. building next wave of supercomputers

Two 20-petaflop systems planned for 2012, but China's Tianhe-1A expected to rank No.1 on Top500 list this year

The U.S. is building two 20-petaflop supercomputers, many times more powerful than anything operating today, including China's new supercomputer, the Tianhe-1A , which is expected to be officially crowned next week as the world's fastest system.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory, home for what has been the world's most powerful system, the Jaguar, a 1.75-petaflop system , versus Tianhe-1A's 2.5 petaflops, is building a 20-petaflop system that will include accelerators.

That system will be ready in 2012, James Hack, director of the National Center for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge, told Computerworld. No other details about the system are being offered.

Another 20-petaflop system is being built for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by IBM. That system has already been announced and is expected to arrive at the lab in late 2011 and be in production in 2012.

The earliest it is likely to be ready for consideration in the Top500 Supercomputer Sites list will be for the June 2012 release of the ranking, said Don Johnston, a spokesman for Lawrence Livermore labs.

Whether these 20-petaflop systems emerge as the top systems in the world remains to be seen, but with China also racing ahead in building its own systems, supercomputing is becoming intensely globally competitive.

"Personally I love it," Jeremy Smith, director of director of the Center for Molecular Biophysics at Oak Ridge, said of the international attention now being paid to supercomputing. "In competing with other countries everybody gains and wins - that's why I'm excited about it."

The global attention may raise the profile of supercomputing and help keep government interest in funding it. When Japan's Earth Simulator emerged as the world's fastest computer in 2002, it "shocked the supercomputing world," Smith said.

The National Research Council, in a report soon after the Japan achieved the top ranking, said that Japan's system "has served as a wake-up call, reminding us that complacency can cause us to lose not only our competitive advantage but also, and more importantly, the national competence that we need to achieve our own goals."

But the Japanese system was a one-time occurrence. China, in contrast, has embarked on a sustained drive to not only build world leading systems, but its own processors and interconnecting technologies for high-performance systems as well.

Japan is still building supercomputers, but its major disclosed project is a 10-petaflop system, nicknamed the "K computer." It's being developed by Fujitsu for use by High-Performance Computing Infrastructure Initiative by Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, and is due in 2012.

This international push in supercomputing also coming at a point when as a global effort mounts to develop new architectures and programming models to support exascale systems, which are 1,000 times more powerful than a petascale system.

Exascale may offer enormous leaps in scientific research, Smith said. A petascale system can model several million atoms and how they behave, but with an exascale system "you could simulate a whole living cell at atomic detail," Smith said. "Every atom would be explicitly represented."

"If we scale up what we are doing today by a factor of 1,000 that's roughly where we would be -- that's pretty amazing," Smith said.

Exascale will have "tremendous implications for human health, biology and many other fields, too," he said.

Along with the technical challenges of building an exascale system will be the need to develop the science, such as a static model of the cell, that serves as the starting point of a simulation.

The expectation, based on development of processor technology, is that the first exascale system may arrive around 2018.

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Patrick Thibodeau

Computerworld (US)
Topics: IT industry, Government use of IT, Mainframes and Supercomputers, IT in Government, IBM, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, government
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